Spiking small-Auckland

Colin James on super-Auckland for Metro Auckland September 2010

Auckland is small. Until it figures how small it is, it won’t get big. Maybe it doesn’t want to.
Auckland is small in three ways: in population compared with great cities around the world; in creativity and economic innovation compared with the great international centres; and in its lack of large spirit.

Just adding people won’t make Auckland big. Hundreds of other cities are adding numbers far faster. Getting more efficient with large council companies won’t get Auckland bigger. To be big, Auckland must rethink itself.

First there must be an “itself”. Seen from outside — and even the inside, much public commentary suggests — Auckland is a squabble of villages. Some bits line one of the world’s finest recreational stretches of water. People there have an enviable lifestyle. Unenviable are the large tracts to the south and west which are high on the developed world’s deprivation statistics. All cities are diverse but Auckland is a diaspora of fragments, patched together with dormitories.

Some excellent things nevertheless happen in this multiple Auckland. The America’s Cup wins grew out of a confluence of science, design, organisation and sportsmanship. There is cutting-edge bioscience. It hatches some energetic popular music.

But sporadic events and localised tendencies do not amount to the “world city” John Key and Rodney Hide want Auckland to be and which the nation needs it to be, if the nation is to be rich.

Key and Hide are now resting after their oxygenic legislative sprint to change Auckland’s rules. There is parallel in economic policy: a busy adjustment of the rules — tax and regulation — to free business to invest in activities that can lift wages and salaries to Australian levels by 2025, which in theory businesses will now do. Changing Auckland’s rules in theory sets the super-mayor, super-council and parochial boards free, and therefore empowered, to deliver a smart, creative metropolis to spearhead the Key-Hide economic transformation.

There is one small snag: the leading candidates for super-mayor have been running small-Auckland and in behind them are phalanxes of place-seeking small-Aucklanders queuing for the council and the shadowy local boards. They are the Auckland which settled for a provincial footy field instead of a world-class arena for the rugby world cup final. The prospect for super-Auckland is business mostly as usual — and rates must not rise. Commercially-savvy region-wide companies supplying services more cost-efficiently are there to see to that.

So has the government just set Auckland free and empowered to think small?

There are big-Aucklanders — as there are big-Hamiltonians and big-Southlanders. Many run companies in Australia or otherwise are helping make Australia bigger. Some inhabit executive suites or research institutions or whizz-bang startups or international organisations in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and smart, rich cities in the United States and Europe. They are ex-Aucklanders, ex-New Zealanders. If they come back, it is usually for the kids’ upbringing and/or a change of pace, their bigness left offshore. Key came back — to be “ambitious for New Zealand” — from big-London, big-New York, big-Singapore and nearly-big-Sydney.

The big-(ex)-Aucklanders’ challenge to Auckland is Florida. Richard Florida, to be precise. Actually, to be more precise, Phil McCann.

Florida distinguished that what made cities special (and rich) was a concentration of creative people: artists, writers, scientists, techno-freaks and entrepreneurs and financiers to leverage their output. Being with others like them multiplied their creativity. Florida conveyed this finding to one of the early-2000s “knowledge wave” conferences organised by big-Aucklander John Hood before he emigrated.

McCann taught at Waikato University for a while and still supervises doctoral students there. He has refined Florida’s thinking. He and a team of spatial economists at Groningen University in Holland have crunched vast quantities of data and found that the 2000s version of globalisation has been making the world “flat” for routine activities but has concentrated “high value, non-routine, knowledge-intensive” activities into “spikes”.

In and around these spikes, wages and incomes are much higher than elsewhere. Every country needs a spike or two if it is going to be world-class rich. That’s McCann’s challenge to Auckland: to make itself into a spike.

McCann is an associate of Motu Research, a world-class independent economic research trust in Wellington (note, not Auckland — and note that techno-creative Weta Digital and the arts festival are also in Wellington). In a Motu study, McCann, Arthur Grimes and Jason le Vaillant analysed the main Australasian cities’ knowledge-intensiveness. Their finding: while Auckland has been acquiring employees in knowledge-intensive sectors faster than any other New Zealand town, it lags the rate of gain in all five main Australian state capitals.

“Auckland is functioning as a core city in New Zealand but is peripheral within Australasia,” their soon-to-be-published paper finds.

“Peripheral” is not “world-class”. Auckland is not a spike.

Brisbane aims to be a spike. Its lord mayor, Campbell Newman, told the local government conference at Sky City on July 26 that Brisbane decided great beaches and being capital of a mining state were not enough and set out to be known as a job-creating technology leader with an enjoyable lifestyle.

It helped that the Queensland state government started to pump money into science and innovation. Result: Brisbane is Australia’s pre-eminent biotechnology centre. Result: Brisbane incomes, once similar to Auckland’s, are now much higher. The lesson: minerals help but they are not the whole story.

Singapore used to get aid from New Zealand. It has one valuable natural resource, its competitive position as an airline and shipping hub. But it is fast outgrowing that, with a biotechnology centre that dwarfs Auckland’s and a $US700 million programme of investment into clean technology that dwarfs New Zealand’s $10.5 million a year for the Global Research Alliance for animal methane research.

Singapore is a city-state: the local government is the central government. Brisbane has the Queensland state government backing it. London and New York operate distinctly, almost separately, from Britain and the United States but they have long been big enough to generate their own energy. Transforming small-Auckland into big-Auckland in a small nation is a project for both the central and local governments.

Creating super-Auckland has created an opening for that joint project. It is significant constitutional change, giving Auckland real weight in the Beehive. If super-Auckland wants to be big-Auckland, it now has national levers.

But those levers will work only if Auckland’s ambitions are the country’s.

For example, will super-Auckland’s “spatial plan” redesign and re-form the cityscape into an attractive, smart-looking place, one that is recognisable to a visitor in 2030 from its buildings, transport corridors and open spaces as a genuine “gateway” to a country that bills itself clean, green, fresh, natural, safe and 100 per cent pure? In his campaign speech at the local government conference John Banks took a step in that direction when he talked of “requiring that all future built development will reflect the stunning quality of the natural environment”.

Turn that round. Auckland can be a spike only if the country’s ambitions are for it to be one.

Key said in a standup at the National party conference in July that “Auckland should be an accelerant on (national) economic growth”. But what is he doing from the centre to drive that? More cows, tour busloads of tourists and bikers won’t ignite Auckland’s accelerant.

One option is heavy investment in creativity and innovation and a large part of that is research, science and technology. Key’s government has so far emulated its predecessors’ determination to stay comfortably below the OECD government RS&T spending average. Super-Auckland’s mayor could get on that case — and while at it, make Auckland a creative arts centre.

Still, Auckland and New Zealand are both too small to get on McCann’s world spike charts. The challenge for the town and the nation is to make an Australasian-sized spike and then lock that somehow into a higher one.

That is a tall order. The trend seems to be in the opposite direction, to fewer, higher spikes. And the auguries for out-of-the-box thinking in super-Auckland and the Beehive don’t look promising.

But if a large spirit came over small-Auckland, who knows? Big-ex-Aucklanders might come back, not for the kids’ schooling but to build big-Auckland. Key might recover his London-New York-Singapore bigness.

Now, which super-mayor candidate can pull that off?